Edinburgh guitarist Sean Shibe’s second album for Pentatone comes within a whisker of being too cool for school. The label describes it as “an ecstatic journey containing music by outsiders, mystics, visionaries, who often have more than one identity”.
Clocking in at 70 minutes, it would be pushing the envelope for a vinyl release, but is formatted that way, with a clear side one/side two split between Oliver Leith’s Pushing my thumb through a plate (originally written for harp) and Meredith Monk’s Nightfall (composed for voices).
The repertoire runs from Monk’s 12th century forebear Hildegard von Bingen to jazzmen Chick Corea and Bill Evans, by way of mavericks Moondog and Julius Eastman. It’s eclectic certainly, but all in the best possible current hipster taste, perfectly designed to appeal to the audience Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan astutely identified for the strand of “contemporary music” he introduced to the programme.
It’s also electric, Shibe playing two amplified solid-bodied guitars, through an array of effects, most extravagantly deployed on the earliest music. Recorded less than half a mile from the EIF’s Leith Theatre venue in Great Junction Street, it roams the globe and the repertoire, including a world premiere by Daniel Kidane (inspired by lockdown and sitting nicely amidst Corea’s Children’s Songs) and an arrangement of Shiva Feshareki’s 2018 VENUS/ZOHREH (originally for string quartet).
The latter’s graphic score, and the one for Eastman’s Buddha, are reproduced in the booklet of a package that has the guitarist indulging his cos-play enthusiasm. If you are looking for a precedent for the cover art style of Shibe’s recent output, look no further than Icelandic avant-pop pixie Bjork.
All of which suggest a bold level of ambition, and the undeniable fact is that Shibe pulls it off. His playing is immaculate, and the soundscapes he builds flawlessly constructed, never in any danger of straying into prog excess, and beautifully recorded. The disc is also sequenced with great care, so that the more melodious works arrive at exactly the correct time. Admirers of the guitarist’s acoustic classical work will find much to enjoy, as will those fans less likely to take a cottage in Earlsferry to hear Schubert chamber music at the East Neuk Festival each summer.
In record company marketing terms, Lost & Found is probably a “crossover” album, but one that is far too plugged into the zeitgeist and modern taste to deserve the label. It stands a very good chance of knocking some of the more obvious products bearing that label off their perches in the classical charts, but is well worth an attentive listen anyway.
The piano wove a binding thread through Friday’s and Saturday’s programming at last week’s East Neuk Festival. Not at the expense of the Festival’s wider chamber music focus, but nonetheless intriguing for its variously fashioned pianistic styles and interpretations. And that’s before East Neuk veteran Christian Zacharias made his appearance – one of his last public recitals before retirement from solo performance – on Sunday.
There was an aura of elder statesmanship accompanying the presence of septuagenarian Elisabeth Leonskaja, who starred in two recitals at Crail Church. One was collaborative, teaming up with Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman and French cellist Ivan Karizna; the other a musical soliloquy featuring the final three Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, a grouping that has been expounded brilliantly in recent years by Scots pianist Steven Osborne.
Those used to Osborne’s sublime sophistication and refined eloquence may have found the drier objectivity of Leonskaja’s Beethoven performances unyieldingly phlegmatic. Yes, she commands a focussed authority that approached its breeziest in the Sonata in E, Op 109, the lyrical expressiveness of the final variations a welcome antidote to the stormy Prestissimo, where Leonskaja’s tendency to thunder out octave bass lines first surfaced.
There was alternating distress and luminosity in the mood swings of the A flat Sonata, Op 110, rocked only by lyrical lines that sold short on silken sustainment. In the final C minor Sonata, Op 111, where the impetuosity of the opening movement found Leonskaja in comfortable territory, she most often internalised the emotional opportunities of the concluding variations, even the exuberance that lights up Beethoven’s before-its-time “boogie-woogie” moment.
That same note of reserve effected a stiffness in Schubert’s Trio no 2 in E flat in her collaboration with Ferschtman and Karizna, despite the constant promise of interactive flair and profusion of passion from the string players.
The earlier part of that Friday recital opened our eyes to the playful duo compatibility of pianists Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy. Tasked with Schubert’s Allegro in A minor, D947, this proved to be a teasing aperitif to their own Saturday showcase programme, which culminated in the four hands version of Stravinsky’s famously paganistic The Rite of Spring.
The route to the Stravinsky was just as tantalising, firstly in the mischievously physical and musical interplay of Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano 4 Hands, then in a cheeky alternating juxtaposition of Beethoven’s Op 45 Marches (like nuclear prototypes for his bigger symphonic creations) and several of Kurtag’s tongue-in-cheek piano sketches from his Jatekok series. One in particular of the Kurtag – a fitful “argument” over three simple chromatically-spaced notes – raised appreciative sniggers.
Then the main billing, A Rite of Spring that lacked none of the ritualistic venom, fiery virtuosity and ballistic rhythmic edge normally associated with the full orchestral version. Tsoy and Kolesnikov invested infinite keyboard colour and energy in a performance that was thrillingly hyperactive and acutely precise.
A similar punctiliousness featured in the pianism of Boris Giltburg, whose Saturday evening programme in Crail with the Pavel Haas Quartet was a masterclass in musical synchronicity. They played two well-matched works from the golden days of European Romanticism, Brahms’ rigorously Germanic Piano Quintet in F minor, complemented perfectly by the Bohemian-scented Piano Quintet No 2 by Dvorak.
It was clear from the outset that mere routine was never on the cards. The Brahms opened teasingly slowly, but quickly accelerated into a slick and dramatically crafted performance, rich in texture and wholesome in scope. Giltburg integrated effortlessly with the off-the-shelf quartet, confidently initiating new directions where it mattered. The same unanimity of purpose brought instant warmth to the Dvorak, its fresher melodic invention a complementary foil to the solidness of the Brahms.
One other key event, a piano-less one on Friday at the Bowhouse near St Monans, focussed on a single masterpiece, Schubert’s substantial Octet, for which the Elias String Quartet teamed up with double bassist Philip Nelson and three highly-prized wind players, Alec Frank Gemmill (horn), Robert Pane (clarinet) and Robin O’Neill (bassoon). Neither the clattering above of a momentary downpour, nor the short while it took for the ensemble to calibrate as a homogenous unit, robbed this performance of its joyous thrills, nuanced generosity and internal cut and thrust. You come to East Neuk mostly for a core helping of mainstream chamber music. It rarely fails to deliver.
Picture of Pavel Kolesnikov & Samson Tsoy by Neil Hanna Photography
Although most of its loyal audience comes to the East Neuk Festival to hear world-class performances of classical chamber music in beautiful, intimate acoustics – particularly some of the lovely churches in that corner of Fife – artistic director Svend McEwan-Brown has long since widened the scope of the event to embrace other spaces, outdoor events and contemporary and world music and jazz, and the audience has demonstrated an appetite for those as well.
And while it is a remarkable blessing that some of the first rank performances of the work of Czech composers by members of the Pavel Haas Quartet and pianist Boris Giltburg had previously been heard only by those attending the Prague Spring Festival, ticket-holders were also able to see and hear freshly-minted work make its first-ever appearance.
On Sunday afternoon, the repurposed agricultural shed near St Monans, the Bowhouse, hosted the largest number of musicians it saw over the course of the event when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra played the last of a run of four dates under the baton of its former principal bassoonist, Peter Whelan. For East Neuk they were joined by soprano Anna Dennis, singing two arias from Mozart’s opera Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, with the fullest expression of anguish (in Traurigkeit) and anger (Martern aller Artern). As in the two symphonies on either side of those songs, Haydn’s 82nd “The Bear” and Beethoven’s 8th, the balance in the room and the detail in the performances was superb, the singer and the wind soloists, of which Whelan was once a star member, on top form.
Early on Friday evening, however, the same space had proved just as appropriate for a unique combination of amplified music, juggling and dance under the title Light the Lights, a beautifully presented hour of the music of Bach, Steve Reich and Nico Muhly that was as much a feast for the eyes as the ears.
With the indisposition of guitarist Sean Shibe, the musical responsibility rested on the shoulders of violinist Benjamin Baker, who not only performed that wide compositional repertoire, but was the physical narrative guide through much of it, starting with a Bach-playing amble from the back of the hall that was impressive enough on its own.
Thereafter he was joined by six members of Gandini Juggling who gave visual expression to some of the compositional techniques used by Reich with clubs and balls moving through the air, in and out of synchronicity. At the conclusion of the performance they added a programmed lighting element to the mix for Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, using recorded music.
In between, the jugglers added solo work and a wry nod to Ligeti’s 100 metronomes while Baker played a movement of Reena Esmail’s Darshan and combined forces with dancer James Pett on an interpretation of Muhly’s A Long Line, for violin and electronics. Much of this had a “work in progress” feel to it, but the sense of being admitted to the creative process was the joy of it, especially with the expressive choreography of Pett, who has a hinterland of work with Richard Alston and Wayne McGregor.
In Anstruther Town Hall on Friday evening, clarinettist Julian Bliss brought a whole suite of box-fresh arrangements by vibraphone player Lewis Wright that extended his jazz excursion into surprisingly contemporary areas. The advance publicity for the Hooray for Hollywood programme had suggested the group was following its acclaimed Gershwin programme with film music from the “Golden Age” of screen musicals. In fact some of the highlights of the set were from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the 2011 movie Midnight in Paris, which adapted Bechet and Django Reinhardt for modern ears. There were classics from the Great American Songbook as well, but Bliss and his cohorts produce a disciplined sound that is a long way from the pub trad band.
As far as East Neuk’s core activity is concerned, this was a year of great riches, with pianists Elisabeth Leonskaya, Pavel Kolesnikov, Samson Tsoy, Boris Giltburg and Christian Zacharias all featured. Leonskaya played Schubert Trios with violinist Liza Ferschtman and young cellist Ivan Karizna in which the beautiful tone of the latter was a discovery, while Kolesnikov and Tsoy explored the same composer’s writing for four hands.
Although no dedication was made, there was surely a nod towards the situation in Ukraine with the Pavel Haas Quartet prefacing its Kilrenny Church concert with Joseph Suk’s nationalist Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn, St Wenceslas. Followed by Korngold’s Quartet No 3 and Janacek’s “Intimate Letters”, this was the Pavel Haas on fertile home territory, the muscular playing of leader Veronika Jaruskova and cellist Peter Jarusek tempered by the newest recruit Luosha Fang, whose viola was so central to the latter.
In Crail Church, the violin and cello couple were joined by Giltburg for two Dvorak trios: the 1876 No 2 is more conventional but less often heard and the 1891 No 4 “Dumky” was given a beautifully-shaped performance, with a particularly memorable steady pulse in the fourth movement. The same venue saw the full quartet joined by Giltburg to play piano quintets of Brahms and Dvorak, as featured on their acclaimed Supraphon recordings.
It is St Ayle Church in Anstruther that often houses other steps away from the mainstream at East Neuk, and it was home this year to the virtuosic oud player Rihab Azar. Combining with bassist Dudley Phillips and percussionist Beth Higham-Edwards, she provided a whistle-stop tour of the contemporary chamber music of Egypt, Iran and her native Syria in a refreshing and relaxing Sunday lunchtime recital that was in some ways a bridge between the core canon of East Neuk and the festival’s more radical exploratory side.
Sean Gandini, founder of Gandini Juggling, talks to KEITH BRUCE about his company’s first appearance at the East Neuk Festival
As many have observed, the pandemic and lockdown restrictions played havoc with perceptions of the passage of time, so that memories of events past can seem more distant or more recent than expected.
Five years ago, in the Dreel Halls in Anstruther, two young musicians played the work of composer Steve Reich in a concert that was to prove more the start of a journey for one than the other, although both have maintained a strong connection with the East Neuk Festival and are part of the 2022 programme.
Guitarist Sean Shibe unveiled elements of his softLOUD project that would go on to wow the Edinburgh Fringe and win him the first of a sequence of awards in its recorded form. Clarinettist Julian Bliss, on the other hand, took a different path by forming a jazz septet. The George Gershwin music he subsequently performed at ENF recently won huge acclaim at London’s Wigmore Hall, and the group brings a new programme of show tunes, entitled Hooray for Holywood, to Anstruther Town Hall on Friday July 1.
Shibe returns this year in the company of violinist Benjamin Baker, both of them former beneficiaries of East Neuk Retreats that enabled the focus on new directions in their music. This year Baker and Shibe are working with ENF debutantes Gandini Juggling on Light the Lights, a son et lumiere combination of music and movement that is another new direction for the festival.
While artistic director Svend Brown has built rewarding loyalties with chamber musicians and ensembles that are the heart of the East Neuk Festival, he has included various non-classical ingredients in the recipe over the years. Visual art, from sand sculpture to film-making, has often been present, while a flirtation with literary events came and went, possibly because of the boom in book festivals at other picturesque locations in Scotland.
This year, as well as jazz and movie music, there is choreography, both from the Daniel Martinez Flamenco Company, who are in the Anstruther venue the evening after Bliss, and from the Gandinis, whose back catalogue has paired their juggling skills with contemporary dance – especially the work of the late Pina Bausch – as well as Indian classical dance and ballet.
Five years ago in Gandini Juggling history, Sean Gandini received a Herald Archangel Award from the Glasgow-based newspaper for his decades of contribution to Edinburgh’s August festivities, and the Angel-winning shows he had brought to the capital. At the time, his group had also recently made a ground-breaking contribution to Phelim McDermott’s acclaimed production of the Philip Glass opera Ahknaten which earned it a Grammy award at the Metropolitan Opera and an Olivier award for English National Opera in London.
When he and I speak, he has just returned from a revival of Ahknaten in New York, and ENO will re-stage the work at the Coliseum next spring. He is now in France, where Lyon’s Les Nuits de Fourviere festival is presenting both parts of the Bausch-influenced shows, Smashed and Smashed 2, together for the first time.
“That is happening at the same time as the Scottish performance which is a much more musical affair,” says Gandini. “We have split the team in two, because we live in an age of extremes and we are now weirdly busy after the pandemic – and one thing we have learned to do is work remotely!” With German juggler Doreen Grossman in charge of realising the ENF project, after Gandini has edited the shape of it via online rehearsals, Light the Lights will premiere at The Bowhouse near St Monans the day before the Gandinis open in Lyon.
“They have had Pina Bausch’s company many times and we will be performing the shows back-to-back at night in a square in front of the opera house where she used to perform.”
The music of Steve Reich is to the fore once more in the East Neuk show, alongside that of Bach, and Grossman will be programming the illuminated juggling to synchronise with the score.
“Light the Lights is a one-off commission, although we have worked before with these light-emitting clubs that are programmed to change colour in time with the music.” Gandini explains.
“It includes Reich’s work with phasing that accelerates a bit of material so that you end up staggered in timing. That is something that is of great interest to us, especially coming straight after working on the Glass. They are so similar and yet so different, those two composers.
“There was dialogue, but it was the Festival that suggested the choice of music and I hope that the show will have a further life, because that is the way that we work. At least elements of it will certainly return because we are working more with live music, and that is so special.”
Beyond any debate is the way that Gandini Juggling has taken the discipline at the heart of its art out of the world of circus and street performance into more exalted company.
“I’d love to do more opera,” Gandini confirms. “There was some suspicion of our involvement in Ahknaten until people actually saw it. It is a very unusual way of using juggling, but then there is a problem of hierarchy in the arts: juggling is lower in the pecking order than opera. Perhaps if Louis XIV had been obsessed with hula-hoops rather than ballet, things might have turned out differently!”
Light the Lights has its first, and so far sole, performance at The Bowhouse on Friday July 1, as part of the East Neuk Festival, June 29 to July 3. Full details of the whole programme are available at eastneukfestival.com
It’s back to business as usual for the East Neuk Festival, which returns to a live 5-day format this summer (29 June – 3 July) after two years of Covid-inflicted limitations.
Announcing the 2022 programme this week, founder and artistic director Svend McEwan-Brown promised the event was “poised to deliver our best festival ever” with over thirty events embracing classical music, folk and jazz, pop-up performances, the annual ENF Retreat for young musicians, dancing and juggling, and this year’s collaborative Big Project, Thunderplump.
The core classical programme follows the ENF’s tried and tested formula, a full diet of chamber music with a particular focus on the piano featuring top international artists and centred around the trio of familiar church venues in Crail, Cellardyke and Kilrenny.
Elisabeth Leonskaja returns to Fife for the third time with solo performances of Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, and with violinist Liza Ferschtman and cellist Ivan Karizna in trios by Schubert. Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy add Schubert’s piano duos to the mix, and tackle Stravinsky’s blockbuster Rite of Spring in its dynamic piano duet version. Veteran Festival favourite, Christian Zacharias, will present his last ENF piano recital before retiring as a soloist.
Another pianist, Moscow-born Boris Giltburg, joins members of the Pavel Haas Quartet in trios and quintets by Dvorak and Brahms. The wider chamber music programme features the flexible Magnard Ensemble, the Elias String Quartet, clarinettist Michael Collins, oboist Robin O’Neill and former SCO principal horn Alec Frank-Gemmill.
On a larger classical format, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra performs Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven with soprano Anna Dennis, under the baton of its former principal bassoonist Peter Whelan.
The town of Anstruther is the hotspot for jazz, folk and traditional music, with programmes that cut across the genres. Kenyan singer songwriter Rapasa Otieno teams up with fiddler-composer Frankie Archer; Syrian oud player Rihab Azar and singer Luke Daniels combine traditional sounds with experimental electronics. Jazz and Middle Eastern music merge courtesy of cellist/improviser Shirley Smart and her trio.
His year’s Big Project, Thunderplump, at the Bowhouse brings together professional, amateur and young musicians and artists for a community initiative involving new and archive film and original music inspired by the unpredictable Scottish weather. Trumpeter John Wallace and Tony George of the Wallace Collection and jazz musician Richard Michael lead a musical conglomerate of 100 young brass players, Fife Youth Jazz and the Tullis Russell Works Band. Curating the event are composer, author and dramatist Neil Brand and filmmaker David Behrens.
Also at the Bowhouse, the ENF’s largest venue, is the collaboration Light the Lights, in which contemporary circus group Gandini Juggling links up with award-winning guitarist Sean Shibe and violinist Benjamin Baker for a one-off multi-genre show.
Performing outside the regular venues and elsewhere in the East Neuk will be Band in a Van, a visible touring presence last year in their converted antique Citroen van, and a big hit with their impromptu pop-up performances.
Full programme details and booking information for the 2022 East Neuk Festival (29 June – 3 July) is available at www.eastneukfestival.com.